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Jewish leader attacks Austrian far right as anti-Semitism cases increase

FILE PHOTO: Supporters wait for Head of Austrian far-right Freedom Party (FPO) Heinz-Christian Strache during an election campaign rally in Vienna, Austria, September 1, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo


VIENNA (Reuters) - The head of Austria's Jewish community accused the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) on Thursday of failing to seriously tackle anti-Semitism in its ranks as a report showed cases of hostility to Jews to be on the rise nationally.

The FPO, which was founded by ex-Nazis in the 1950s, came third in last year's parliamentary election with 26 percent of the vote and is now a junior coalition partner to Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's conservatives.

It first enjoyed mainstream success under the late Joerg Haider, who praised Hitler's employment policies and led the party into government in 2000.

The FPO now focuses its criticism on Islam while courting Jewish voters and denouncing anti-Semitism.

"The question is, how credible is that?" Oskar Deutsch, the head of the main body representing Austria's Jews, told a news conference. "You can't go 'click' and say 'Until now we've been like this but now we're not anti-Semitic anymore, now we have other interests'. That is not credible."

A report published on Thursday by the Forum Against Anti-Semitism showed the number of registered cases of anti-Semitism in Austria had reached 503 last year, the highest since the first full report was compiled in 2015.

"What we observe is a reduction in inhibitions," Amber Weinber of the Forum Against Anti-Semitism told the joint news conference. "It has generally become more socially acceptable to make such (anti-Semitic) statements."

Deutsch gave the example of the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who died in 2005.

"He got a lot of fan mail, threats," he said. "But all those threats he received had no sender on them. Today these threats clearly state exactly who they came from. That is the problem -- anti-Semitic statements are becoming ever more normal."

The reported cases ranged from Internet and social media postings (171) or letters and phone calls (203) to physical attacks (5). Of those, no ideological background was clear in 62 percent of cases.

Roughly a quarter of cases, 24 percent, had a right-wing background while 10 percent were connected to Islam.

Although those right-wing cases were not directly linked to the FPO, Deutsch said it carried more responsibility than other parties.

"Where have we heard many anti-Semitic statements from for decades? It didn't begin with Haider -- it was the case well before then. If it regularly comes from one political party, it is from FPO officials," said Deutsch, whose organisation refuses to deal with FPO ministers.

The FPO says it has left its neo-Nazi past behind but its members are still regularly implicated in anti-Semitic scandals -- most recently Udo Landbauer, who headed the FPO list in Lower Austria, the province that surrounds Vienna.

He resigned over having been in a fraternity that previously published a songbook with lyrics making light of the Holocaust. The FPO has since announced it will set up a committee to investigate its history.

"That is history and that is important, but what about now, what about the present day? I see nothing," Deutsch said.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Toby Chopra)

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